Malaysian police said Saturday that they had detained 79 suspects linked to Filipino intruders in Borneo as they intensify an operation to flush out members of a Filipino Muslim clan who took over a village last month.
The armed clansmen have caused political havoc for Malaysia and the neighboring Philippines by trying to stake a long-dormant royal territorial claim to Malaysia's sprawling, resource-rich state of Sabah in Borneo. Most of the Filipinos eluded capture in a coastal Sabah district filled with palm oil plantations and forested hills after Malaysian forces attacked them with airstrikes and mortar fire on Tuesday.
National police chief Ismail Omar said 79 men and women, held without trial under a security law, were being investigated for their links to the gunmen.
He said they were detained outside the conflict zone but didn't give further details. The detainees are believed to be informants or food suppliers to the gunmen, but it's unclear if they were Malaysians or Filipino nationals.
Ismail said a Filipino gunman was killed early Saturday after he tried to escape a police cordon, raising the death toll in the conflict to 61.
Representatives of the Filipino group have disputed the casualty numbers provided by Malaysian authorities. The main contention is over 31 Filipinos whom police and the military said were fatally shot Thursday. The clansmen's representatives in the Philippines insisted there had been no deaths on their side that day, and neither side has managed to conclusively prove their conflicting claims.
The clansmen are led by a brother of Jamalul Kiram III, who claims to be the sultan, or hereditary ruler, of the southern, predominantly Muslim province of Sulu in the Philippines. Malaysia's government has rejected a call by Kiram for a cease-fire and urged the gunmen to surrender unconditionally.
International rights group Human Rights Watch on Saturday echoed a call by the U.N. chief to ensure the protection of civilians and for humanitarian access to help those affected by the violence.
"The situation on the ground in the conflict zone in Sabah is still quite murky, and the government of Malaysia should provide clear and accurate information on what has occurred," said Human Rights Watch's Asia deputy-director, Phil Robertson.
The New York-based group said it was concerned over the use of a new security law to detain dozens of suspects and urged the government to charge or release them.
Fifty-three gunmen and eight Malaysian policemen have died, mainly in shootouts between security forces and the Filipino group and their suspected allies. The clansmen sneaked into Sabah by sea from the nearby southern Philippines around Feb. 9.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this week called for dialogue among the parties to bring an end to the violence.
Malaysia's government has said that it made every effort to coax the Filipinos to leave and that it had to use force after the group fatally shot two policemen on March 1. Six other police officers were ambushed and killed by other Filipinos believed to be linked to the clansmen in another Sabah district. The Malaysians have killed at least 53 clansmen and their suspected allies.
The Filipinos say Sabah once belonged to their royal sultanate for more than a century and should be handed back. Malaysia has dismissed their long-dormant territorial claim to the oil-and-timber-rich state, which has been part of Malaysia for five decades.
An estimated 800,000 Filipinos, mostly Muslims from insurgency-plagued southern provinces, have settled in Sabah over the years to seek work and stability.